Isabella in William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: Paragon of Virtue or Despicable Pride?

At varying times Isabella in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has been seen as a marvelous symbol of virginal purity, and an utterly distasteful and self-righteous prude. The problem is that while it is theologically correct for her to value her immortal soul more highly than her brother’s life, it is also distasteful, and an audience might prefer her to take a decision that was theologically and morally wrong, but more admirable in human terms, namely to sacrifice her body for her brother’s survival. 

William Shakespeare
Perhaps Shakespeare’s audience would have been more familiar than a modern audience with ‘the idea that no good can come out of evil, and Angelo confirms this when he says he will not release Claudia even if Isabella does submit to him, thus perhaps justifying Isabella’s early decision not to submit. A Jacobean audience would have had a more vivid concept of hellfire and damnation (which is what Isabella risks if she submits to Angelo), and would value the whole concept of honour more than a modern audience. However, it is dangerous to rely too heavily on assumptions about the Jacobean audience: being dead, they have the too-convenient attribute of not being able to argue with any features ascribed to them. Even if Isabella’s decision is the right one, the play suffers drastically if she alienates the audience’s sympathy.

Much of the problem can be resolved by the actress. If she plays the confrontation with Angelo in terms of icy certainty she is liable to lose the audience’s sympathy; if she plays it as a girl in a helpless and hopeless flight from defilement, someone convulsed by desperation, loneliness, and revulsion, then her decision not to give in to Angelo can be seen as springing from uncontrollable aversion, something for which an audience can feel sympathy, and which increases their desire to see an end to the tyranny of Angelo’s rule. Claudio and Isabella are essentially in the same position. Both are alone, helpless, threatened, and fearful, and in both this leads to selfishness. At the start of the play, part of Isabella’s apparent sanctity Is In fact selfishness, just as part of Angelo’s morality is hypocrisy. Both characters have to change and acquire self-knowledge, with more difficulty than the corresponding characters in the comedies, but without the death and destruction that accompanies the acquisition of self-knowledge in the tragedies.

One problem that is less easily answered is the change that appears to come over Isabella mid-way through the play, when she seems to hand responsibility for her actions over to the Duke and lose much of her individuality and at the end of the play when she rather surprisingly agrees to marry the Duke.

Ardhendu De


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